At the close of the semester, third grade teacher Kathleen Shahla reminds our community of who we are: “If you were to peek in an SJEDS classroom, you would first notice the modern design and furniture, children working on iPads or reporting from the Broadcast studio. While cutting-edge technology, best practices and innovative learning have been stressed, and teacher Apple-certified badges hang outside doors, at its heart, the school is steeped in beloved traditions.” The first semester of the 2020-2021 school year was one full of challenge and patience but also creativity and joy. Our yearbook theme for 2020-2021 is “Traditions Take Flight,” referencing the Day School’s commitment to traditions even during a most unusual school year.
Traditions remind us each year of what’s important, contribute to a sense of anticipation, and strengthen the community by bringing people together. Mrs. Shahla explains, “It’s through these traditions life-long friendships are cemented and memories made.” Although we missed the face-to-face connection involved with classroom parties, field trips, and whole-school Chapel services, the students at St. James still came away from the holiday season with reminders of the importance of generosity, faith, and friendship. Masks, social distancing, extra hand washing, and cohorts couldn’t stop the building sense of wonder and hope before the birth of Christ.
Even though visitors have been kept to a minimum this fall, the school has never looked better this December. Teachers, students, and administrators continued to take pride in our surroundings and enjoyed traditions of placing Christmas trees in each classroom, decking the front office tree with family Christmas cards, and adorning each hallway, bulletin board, and the cafeteria with student art and seasonal writing. The St. James second grade even helped decorate our nearby EBR Public Library on North Boulevard by donating angel artworks to display for the month of December.
In their classes and at weekly Chapel services, students continued to learn about the nativity and traditions surrounding Christmas. The season began with the Advent Feast of St. Nicholas on the first Friday in December, with classes participating in Chapel either virtually or in person. Later in the month, PreK-4 students created a large nativity scene bulletin board and performed a reading of the Christmas story in front of it that was shared with parents over Seesaw. The Christmas program–a beautiful concert of Christmas carols held by third through fifth graders–unfortunately had to be cancelled, but we look forward to holding it again next year.
In Christian Education classes, students participated in an annual Advent Outreach Project. Christian Education teacher DeSha Carter led the school in an “Helping Hands and Faithful Feet” collection of new socks and gently used blankets this year to donate to St. Vincent de Paul. Our students participated by bringing donations during December, and the fourth and fifth graders pulled the effort together by gathering donations from each hallway and transporting them to trucks outside the school. Fourth and fifth graders also continued monthly service projects by preparing We Care Bags for the church and organizing donations for the Food Bank.
Our annual Gingerbread Day still took place thanks to the hard work of Development Director Jennifer Whittington, administrators, teachers, and parent volunteers behind the scenes. Students stayed in their grade level cohorts throughout the day to enjoy gingerbread balloon decorations and a snow machine in the front entry, festive music, gingerbread house decorating, outdoor Reindeer Games, and a hot chocolate break with their classmates. Students in our Early Childhood Development Center formed a new tradition with a Drive-in Movie. Children in our toddler and PreK-3 classes brought cars crafted from cardboard boxes to use for a class showing of a holiday cartoon outside on the Killgore Hall playground.
This year, Head of School Bridget Henderson tweaked the schedule slightly to have Gingerbread Day on Tuesday, December 15th instead of Friday. This change allowed students who wished to stay home from school to quarantine before seeing grandparents on Christmas to do so without missing the annual celebration day. “Although we had to make some adjustments this year, we look forward to bringing back Gingerbread Day on Friday next year with parents there to share in the festivities,” said Mrs. Henderson.
In another favorite tradition, students reminded each other about the joy that comes from giving by participating in a class book or gift exchanges. In 1st grade, students brought a wrapped book and came home with a different one gifted by a classmate. Kindergarten students brought homemade ornaments to exchange. Fifth graders focused their attention on giving to the community by doing an annual visit to La Belle Aire Elementary’s first grade to read the story Santa Mouse by Michael Brown. Although they were not able to make the field trip this year, the tradition still happened through small groups creating video read-alouds for the La Belle Aire first graders. 5th grade teachers Erin Adkins and Kellye Carville sent the videos and also delivered the gifts and materials to make a Santa Mouse craft on behalf of their students.
A final longstanding St. James tradition that continued this year was the creation of Christmas plates. Each year all St. James students, including our early learners, decorate plates at school, create their own wrapping paper, and bring the plates home as gifts for their parents. A number of St. James parents have collected a stack of plates over the years to use throughout the season. Some, such as current parents Caroline Graham and Sarah Harvey, have created colorful plate displays in their homes. Caroline described how putting up their plate collection “commemorates our holiday highlights year after year,” creating a diary of sorts.
As we close our doors for the holiday break, we’re grateful that so much of what we love about Christmas at St. James continued during this unprecedented time. The patience and flexibility of our teachers, parents, administrators, and students allowed us to still come together to experience love, kindness, and joy this season. Reflecting on the fall semester, Mrs. Henderson said, “Our team is working on plans for Spring 2021, and we are excited to share with you about how other beloved St. James traditions will take flight in the coming months.” In the meantime, our students helped with this special message, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!